Denny Hamlin Scores First Cup Pole of the Season
Denny Hamlin blitzed the Watkins Glen road course with the fastest lap of the day on Saturday to win the provisional pole for Sunday's Go Bowling at the Glen, pending post-qualifying inspection on Sunday morning.
Hamlin covered the 2.45-mile distance in 70.260 seconds (125.534 mph), edging Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (125.427 mph) by 0.060 seconds. First-round leader Chase Elliott was third fastest in the final session at 125.421 mph, just 0.003 seconds slower than Busch.
"I had a great day today, and hopefully we can cap it off tomorrow," said Hamlin, who earned his first Busch Pole Award of the season, his first at Watkins Glen and the 26th of his career.
Hamlin found NASCAR's enhanced schedule helpful--with two practice sessions and qualifying on the same day.
"I typically haven't qualified well here," Hamlin said. "A lot of it is because we (traditionally) qualify on a different day than we practice. I think today, being able to use those repetitions and still be hot from practice and have things fresh in your mind--I just got a little faster each round, so that helped."
Busch's No. 18 Toyota was the consensus favorite in the garage, and Hamlin was surprised to be able to beat his teammate.
"He's usually pretty good at this stuff," Hamlin acknowledged. "But once the 9 (Elliott) and the 18 had gone, and I went behind them, and he (crew chief Mike Wheeler) said we were P1, I felt that we had a good shot at.
"But it's amazing to me how well Kyle hits his marks and doesn't make mistakes, especially on a one-lap qualifying get-it-done moment."
The starting positions won't be official until NASCAR inspects the cars before Sunday's race.
Elliott was trending for the pole until the final turn.
"I felt like I had a good lap going, and then I got a little loose out of (Turn) 11 and thought I could stay in it," Elliott said. "And then I thought I didn't have any more room--I don't know how close it was (to the wall), but it must have been pretty close.
"That sucks. I just hate to be that close."
A number of big names fell by the wayside in the first of the two rounds, notably six-time 2018 winner Kevin Harvick, who posted the 16th fastest speed. Martin Truex Jr., who finished fourth in the first round, bumped out seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the final minute.
Johnson was just .008 second slower than Kasey Kahne, who wound up with the 12th and last transfer position in Round 1.
"You hate to be that close and not advance to the second round," said Johnson, who expects to race well on Sunday. "But the 9 car (Elliott) has great speed."
Brad Keselowski, a perennial contender at the WGI road course, qualified 18th, and Clint Bowyer posted the 19th fastest speed.
MARTIN TRUEX JR., No. 78 5-hour ENERGY/Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry, Furniture Row Racing
What are your thoughts heading into this week and winning three road-course races in a row?
“I am looking forward to it. I like coming up here to Watkins Glen. It’s a great race track and I really enjoy the road racing. We’ll see if we can make it three in a row. I feel like things would have went right, maybe we would have got three in a row and been going for four. That’s racing and that’s the way it goes. Being able to put it all together last year here and win was a big win for my career. We’ve been coming here a long time. So to finally get that win was special. Hopefully we can back it up this weekend.”
Do you when your car goes through tech so you know where you are starting?
“I don’t. As long as we know where we’re starting before the race, I am okay. Whether it’s the night before or the morning of, it doesn’t change a whole lot. If anything, you probably sleep better that night if you know where you’re starting. But, it doesn’t change much at the end of the day.”
Do you feel like you’ve passed into the road course aces fraternity?
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I have been fortunate enough to be with a great team the past few years and to be able to take advantage of that. They’ve given me great cars and I feel like I’ve always been good at road courses. You look back in Xfinity Series days and Mexico, and things like that. I feel like we’ve always been strong on road courses but now I feel like I have the team that gives me the capability of winning. So we’ve been winning. I don’t know how my name fits into that conversation. I guess you’d have to ask other people that.”
What are your thoughts on the All-Star package being utilized in 2019?
“I think a tapered space or some sort of reduced horsepower will be a part of that package when we run it, there’s no question. For me personally, I’d like to have as much power as possible. I’d like to deviate as little as possible from where we are now. Based on what I know and what I’ve worked on as a driver for my entire career. I think the closer we can stay to where we’re at now is what the drivers want. We don’t make the rules but we’ll see how this goes?
What are your thoughts on getting a win in Michigan next week?
“It’d be nice to get a win there. It’s an interesting track. It’s really difficult. It’s one that’s been really good to us the past couple of years. We went there this year and back in the early summer, we were awful. It’s weird. The place is so big and fast. If you’re off just a little bit, it feels like a lot and you can just really struggle. Difficult track. Takes a lot to get around there. Horsepower, aerodynamics, set up, you name it. Difficult place and hopefully we can go there and have a good run with our Toyota.”
Does it mean anything to you that you’d be the first driver since Tony Stewart to win three-straight road course races?
“It means a lot to me, personally. I think everyone in the garage – you want to be known in the garage as a driver that can win anywhere. Certainly road courses are a unique set of circumstances. I think it’s an extra special feeling to be able to win at tracks that are completely different like this. I feel like we should have three in a row already and be going for four. The trouble we had a Sonoma last year. That’s kind of the way it goes in racing sometimes. Things don’t go your way and sometimes you might win without the best car. Last year, we were lucky enough to win here. We had a great car. And a great weekend. There were a couple guys that were as fast as we were but we were able to put it all together. It takes a lot to be able to win these races and my hope is that we’ll be fast enough and put ourselves in a position. You have to hope things go the way you need them to and you’re around the front in the end so you can go for it.”
What are some of the nuances that separate you, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch at a given weekend?
“I think it depends on the race track and where we’re at. I can’t speak for those guys but I am sure they have certain tracks they feel they’re better at or team is better at or they really have dialed in and have that confidence. I think we all have tracks where maybe we feel like we have a slight advantage. And you hope that when you get to those places, you can take advantage of it because it’s important as those other guys are so good everywhere. I think for us we try to go into every weekend and maximize points, especially bonus points right now. With Playoffs coming up, we want to get as many of those as we can. I feel like if we go one weekend without getting any, you fall behind. You look at last weekend and Harvick got bonus points, Kyle won the race and we didn’t run well. We fell behind even more. You can’t let those things slip away and you have to be on top of your game each and every weekend.”
What makes Watkins Glen unique as a track and what challenges does it present?
“Well, it’s very unique in that it’s the fastest road course we go to by far. We go to Sonoma and you think that – I feel like Sonoma is like a short track, right? A lot slower corners, a lot – I would say I guess more technical maybe, but more turns, a lot slower speeds, less heavy braking zones, less grip, a lot more tire fall-off. Just completely a 180 from there to here, where here you have really high-speed straights and even high-speed corners. A few heavy braking areas, but you know, not much tire wear, not much fall-off, fresher pavement. Jus the feel you get here is completely different than Sonoma. I guess for me here, just the speed. This is a speedway of road courses in my opinion just because of the speed you carry around here and it’s – it can be quite treacherous, especially since the repave with fairly hard tires on these cars and a lot of horsepower. It’s quite a handful and it’s pretty exciting.”
How has what Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick done challenged you this year and how is it different than how you’ve been challenged in years past?
“Well, I think again, the hardest part has just been if you’re off just a little bit, it’s like there they go with more points. That’s kind of, I guess our focus being where we’re at. We’re basically – we feel like where we’re at, we’re going to probably be third at the regular season point standings when that ends up. We’re too far behind really to catch Kyle (Busch) I believe - unless something catastrophic happened to him and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) a few weeks in a row like it did to us. The biggest thing honestly, the challenge is just trying each and every week to come away with something – points, wins, playoff points is the biggest thing I think. The challenge is that this sport’s tough, this series is tough and if you’re off a little bit – you could be the best team for 10 weeks and then go three-in-a-row and get your butt kicked. For us, when we have those off weekends, those other guys come away with points and we don’t, it’s like dang, we’ve got to be more consistent. It’s hard to say when you have 14 top-fives or whatever the heck it is, you have to be more consistent, but that’s just the way it is. Those guys are so good and their teams are so good. They execute. They don’t make mistakes and if you slip, they could take advantage of it and pull away and that’s the hard part for us has just been trying to keep up with them this year.”
Does being part of the ‘Big Three’ phase you at all or do you buy into that?
“I don’t really worry too much about it. Obviously, it’s cool to be a part of. It’s fun to be one of the guys in the conversation each weekend. It’s great for our sponsors, our partners and everything like that. It’s fun to look at, but I don’t really worry about it. If you go out there and you don’t get results for three or four weeks in a row, next thing you know, that’s all they’re talking about. It’s all you guys are talking about – what happened to the 78? What’s going on? They’re in trouble. It is what it is. I enjoy hearing about it when I see it, but the real fact is that we have to work hard to stay where we’re at and keep pushing to get better or else the other guys are going to pull away.”
Is it fun or stressful racing Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this year?
“It’s fun, yeah. Stress really doesn’t set in until the Playoffs – elimination races I guess. There’s a few of them that are stressful, but aside from the it’s a fun challenge. I think it’s probably more stressful for the teams and the crews that they know one mistake or one bad decision could really affect the season, but I think for us as drivers, we enjoy it and thrive under that pressure of performing at a high level.”
Are there any areas that you as a driver have grown on or improved specifically?
“I would say that in this sport today with all the information available, if you’re not continuing to evaluate yourself and work on things you could do better – and that’s each and every week, it’s not something that stops. You don’t ever say ‘well, I’m the best there is and I don’t have anything else to learn’. It’s an evolving process. Things are constantly changing and you have to be open-minded enough to be willing to change. I think all the good guys in the garage really look data and what other guys are doing and always have that measuring stick to look at, to compare themselves to and try to be the best that they can be. I feel like it changes week to week and you always have to be looking for more.”
Can you expand on why you prefer more horsepower and the least amount of downforce?
“I feel like making the cars easier to drive when you’ve worked your whole career to be one of the top guys in the sport – I feel like it’s taking some of that advantage away from me behind the wheel, so that’s kind of why I don’t like it. I don’t want these cars to be easy to drive. I don’t want to – anybody to be able to get in there and hold it wide open and call it a race. That’s just not the way I see it. I just prefer less downforce, more horsepower – harder to drive cars.”
At this point of the season, is it difficult to fathom someone else entering into the championship conversation after you, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have dominated the season so far? Is it even possible for someone to join that conversation?
“I think it’s definitely possible. I think we’ve seen a few guys show up here and there and if they can just find a way to capture that consistently, that’s going to be the key. I think the thing that stands out about our three teams is just how long we’ve been together, the success we’ve all had together as groups and the consistency we’ve shown and I think a lot of it is because of that. You see guys that are maybe – (Clint) Bowyer has two wins this year and he’s still fairly new at that team and I feel like they’re getting better, guys like that. (Aric) Almirola shows up every once in a while and has speed to challenge with his teammates, but they make mistakes or things happen, things don’t go the way they need them to. That’s just part of the learning curve I think as a team. For me, I feel like there’s so much of the pressure is off my shoulders because I know how good my team is and I can focus on my job, they can focus on theirs. It’s kind of that confidence you leave and go to the race track with – I think that’s something that the three of us have that’s really hard to explain. It’s kind of that X Factor that teams look for and it’s hard to find, so as long as we keep that up, we’ll be there, but you never know when someone else could find that. There’s been guys fast enough here lately, especially to be part of that conversation.”
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